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Elisabeth McLaughlin / Staff Photographer

The semester ends in less than a month. My favorite spot on the fourth floor of Butler grows more crowded by the day. The line in Starbucks lengthens by a few people each morning. Office hours and tutoring slots fill up so quickly that they have become a rare commodity.

I am sitting in the waiting room of Columbia Health. Again.

I have never been in great health. In past semesters, before I came to Columbia, I had missed countless classes and shifts because I was sick to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed. Doctors blamed all my symptoms—vomiting, fatigue, light-headedness, and too many others to name here—on my mental illness. The vomiting was due to anxiety, they said, the fatigue was due to depression. It made me feel guilty and ashamed as if I were faking these physical symptoms to justify taking a mental health day.

Now, I have recovered from depression and anxiety, but my physical symptoms still persist. They flared up about two months ago, when I started skipping an occasional meal because I wasn’t hungry or because I was nauseated. Gradually, one meal became many, and though there was nothing substantial in my stomach, I began to vomit regularly. It wasn’t an eating disorder; I wanted to eat, and I missed food, but I couldn’t keep anything down. By early October, I was rarely eating but vomiting on a daily basis. I was fatigued and light-headed all the time. Although I kept up with my homework as best I could, I had no motivation to do anything and forced myself out of bed each morning for fear I would fall behind in class.

I found an awesome primary care provider at Columbia Health who told me my symptoms were real. In fact, there were many more I hadn’t noticed—a sinus infection, a heart murmur, dehydration. I cried in the examination room. I was so relieved to hear that my health problems were real, that this wasn’t a mid-semester slump, or, worse, a relapse of mental illness. I carried on as best I could––taking my medicine, drinking gallons of Gatorade, going to class, and checking in with my professors.

Then I was admitted to the ER twice in one week.

Both times, I was severely dehydrated; once, I passed out. My follow-up appointments with a cardiologist and a gastroenterologist haven’t revealed anything seriously wrong with me yet, but I have an echocardiogram next week and two nonsurgical exploratory procedures for the week after that.

I am scared of what is going wrong with my body. For so long, doctors used my mental illness as a scapegoat for these very physical symptoms. It shouldn’t take 10 years to diagnose a physical condition, yet here I am––at 27 years old––still waiting for answers. At least now, I know I am experiencing actual physical symptoms that are causing me stress and pain. In order to do my best at school, I need to heal.

The lesson I have learned is this: Don’t invalidate yourself. Listen—really listen—to your body when it is telling you something is wrong. As my advisor recently said, health comes first always. Don’t let anyone tell you your physical symptoms are “all in your head.” This is doubly true for those going through mental illness. Your body matters just as much as your mind does.

I feel a sense of urgency at Columbia, and while it has always been present on campus, it now feels more dire than ever. At our school, it is easy to put off that doctor’s visit or blame physical symptoms on stress and lack of sleep. We are a school of overachievers; this is what we do. My advisor told his advisees at the beginning of the semester that sleep, diet, and exercise are the first to go as a student becomes pressed for time. In class and around campus, I hear students brag about how little sleep they got, or how many meals they skipped, or other sacrifices to their health they make in favor of better grades. This lifestyle is not sustainable in the long term and will likely result in more serious health conditions later on.

Good health is a prerequisite to success. By taking care of yourself now, you are setting yourself up for a bright and productive future.

So take a moment. Take a breath. Listen to your body, recognize what it needs, and indulge in that. Your textbook will stay open to the page you left it on. There will be more semesters to come, more grades, projects, and jobs.

Pay attention to your body. It is the only one you will ever have.

The author is a junior who transferred to the School of General Studies in the fall of 2019. She is majoring in creative writing and holds her associate of fine arts from Normandale Community College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She currently lives in the Bronx.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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